A gifted and beloved Sunday School teacher who had for years served hundreds of children – including mine – at our church, suddenly didn’t show up anymore, and I wondered what caused her abrupt departure. Several weeks later I ran into her while grocery shopping and asked her how she was doing. She began crying, and told me that she had gotten sick from an alcohol addiction and just didn’t have the energy to go on teaching. For years, she had taught strong moral values to children, yet compromised her own values by secretly getting drunk at home during the day before her kids came back from school. Why? She said that her daytime drinking sessions eased the pressure she constantly felt to be morally perfect. Those temporary breaks from having to live up to her moral values relieved stress in her life – but ultimately led to much more stress, as the sin of drunkenness led to an addiction that seriously damaged her health.
As I reflected on the teacher’s morality breaks, I realized that I wasn’t in any position to judge her. No, I hadn’t ever been drunk, but I was also guilty of the sin of not taking care of my body when I was under moral stress: I sometimes binged on chocolate to try to relieve the pressure of people expecting that an inspirational writer like me should be perfect.
No one can ever be perfect in this fallen world, but that doesn’t stop some of us from trying. It’s tempting to think that we’re perfectly capable of living up to what we believe all the time. That’s simply not true, however. In fact, the more we try to follow strict moral values in our own strength rather than by relying on God's grace, the more stress we create in our lives, ironically setting ourselves up for exactly what we’re trying to guard against: moral failure.
A research study from the American Psychological Association found in 2006 that the more stress people experience in their lives, the more likely they are to respond by making poor choices, such as smoking. Stress can make us all more vulnerable to a whole array of bad moral choices – from lying to stealing – so it’s crucial to stop stressing ourselves by trying to be perfect.
Over a period of time, self-imposed moral pressure can build up to extremely dangerous breaking points. Retired Japanese school Principal Yuhei Takashima spent several decades enforcing moral codes at the schools where he worked. But after police arrested Takashima for possessing child pornography, he said that he had paid for sex with more than 12,000 different prostitutes – some of whom were as young as age 14 – over the years. Police said Takashima told them that he relieved the stress of trying to be morally perfect in his workplace by taking breaks from his moral values when he wasn’t at work.
Here are 5 ways to ease pressure in your life so you can avoid “morality breaks”:
1. Get real. Adjust your expectations of yourself to match reality. Ask God to help you see yourself from his perspective, which will humble you. Acknowledge that you’re only human – and that means sometimes making mistakes. If you expect yourself to be perfectly faithful in everything you think, say, and do, disappointment and frustration will build up in your soul each time you fail to do so. Eventually, you’ll become so discouraged that you’ll be tempted to simply give up all your efforts to be faithful, since at least then you won’t feel the constant pain of failure. Shift your goal from striving for perfection to striving for excellence. Instead of trying to be perfect, try simply to do your best in every situation. All God expects of you is to try to do what’s right; if God sees that your motivations are pure, he will be pleased with you even when you make mistakes.
2. Embrace grace. Keep in mind that your gracious God is for you, not against you. God loves you completely and unconditionally, and no mistake you make will ever cause you to lose God’s amazing love. Consider what current moral struggles you have, and confess each one specifically to God, asking him to give you the grace you need to overcome the temptation to sin in that particular area. Rather than relying on your own willpower or hard work to make the right moral choices, rely on God’s grace by asking the Holy Spirit to empower you to do what’s right in every situation that tempts you.
3. Make time to have fun regularly. Give yourself permission to have good clean fun on a regular basis. Fun acts as a pressure relief valve in your life. The more frequently you have fun in healthy, moral ways, the less likely you are to give into the temptation to have fun in unhealthy, immoral ways, because your appetite for fun will be satisfied. It’s just like when you’re hungry for food – if you let yourself go hungry for too long, you’re likely to eat junk food that’s bad for you instead of the healthy food God intends for you. Make time in your schedule often for activities that are especially fun for you: playing a sport, laughing with your children, watching a movie, eating out, etc.
4. Be aware (beware) of stress. You’re most vulnerable to fall into sin when you’re dealing with a lot of stress. When you’re under a significant amount of stress, stop and pray God’s help to find peace before making a major decision. Carefully consider what the main sources of stress are in your life right now. Pray about each one, asking God to show you what specific steps you can take to reduce your stress levels (perhaps by resolving conflict and making peace with someone, or by eliminating some activities from your schedule that aren’t truly important). Be sure to take regular stress breaks; that will help ensure that you don’t end up taking morality breaks instead. Build free time into your schedule on a regular basis to enjoy activities that relax you, such as: reading, walking, listening to music, or snuggling with a pet.
5. Focus more on who you are with God than on what you do for God
. God cares more about who you are as a person than he does about what you do for him. Serving God by volunteering in your church and community is noble, but all of those efforts are worthless if you do them without the foundation of a strong relationship
with God. Spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible
reading, solitude, and silence can all help you develop and maintain a close relationship with God, which is what you really need to make good moral choices. If you’re close to God, he will transform you so that you won’t have to try to force yourself into doing what’s right – you’ll want
to do what’s right, because you’ll become a holier person, thanks to God’s grace at work in your soul.
God is pleased with our desire to do what’s right. But to actually make good moral choices, we must remember that we can only make them through God’s grace. As Romans 1:17
says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith
from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” It’s ultimately through the power of faith that we can overcome temptations to take morality breaks and do what’s right consistently.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, produces a site about angels and miracles for About.com. She is author of the young adult inspirational novel Dream Factory (which is set during Hollywood's golden age) and writes about the power of thoughts on her “Renewing Your Mind” blog.
Publication date: May 15, 2015